This is my tenth column on the representation of women in cinema. Considering that I have always instinctively noticed how women are portrayed, I have realised during these weeks that four words have become my close friends. Descriptions of memorable women characters are seldom found without these words — ‘rarely do we ever’. Rarely do we ever see women be sensible onscreen; rarely do we see them have jobs; rarely do we see them have a personality… you get the drift. And in this week’s episode of ‘Rarely Have We Ever’, we have the web series Queen, written for the screen by Reshma Ghata and directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon and Prasath Murugesan.
What I really like about Queen is that it doesn’t stop at just showing what we rarely see on screen. As the Cinema Express review of this film mentioned, it would have been easy to just rely on the protagonists’ popular persona (Shakti’s character is loosely based on Late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa). Instead, it acts as a meditation of Shakti Seshadhri on her tumultuous life. The world isn’t an easy place for a thinking woman, even more so when she is vocal about it. And her reflections prove to be deeply insightful for any modern woman who refuses to play by the existing patriarchy-stained rules.
The questions Shakti faces, and the inferences she makes as she grows up, have the familiar air of a hug from an old friend. “I can’t pretend like I see things and I don’t understand them,” states a young Shakti, during her teens. Her intellect receives resistance from those who encounter it. And what Shakti says when she met GMR is a line that’s worth its weight in gold. “For the first time in a very long time, I felt I wasn’t punished for being smart...I didn’t have to apologise for actually having a head on my shoulder.” Reshma’s writing is empathetic, scathing, revealing, and also precise.
Take what Shakti says about her feelings for GMR. “Have you thought back of time, and wondered why you felt a certain way towards someone, even when you know they offer so little? Why at that point, it felt like you are getting a lot?” And she later builds on this thought, pondering how could one get carried away ‘against all reason to feel something about someone that normally you should feel nothing for’. There’s no better description of why a woman chooses to stay in a not-so-ideal relationship. The fact that both the original book and the screen adaptation were written by women, must surely amount to something.
Be it Shakti’s struggles with her family, or love or motherhood, the emotional intelligence shines through in the dialogues. There’s a myriad of emotions that the writing navigates, but with measured, calculated steps that come with experience. Can a smart woman make unwise choices? Can a headstrong person be equally vulnerable as well? The writing reminded me of what philosopher David Whyte once wrote: “Maturity is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts.”
The performances of Anikha, Anjana Jayaprakash, and Ramya Krishnan are all terrific. But I personally loved the vivacity that Anjana brought to Shakti, the impulsive, effervescent naivete which she counterbalances with her willful, stubborn side. This intricate treatment is reserved not only for the main character, but also for the other supporting women. This is a world that captures imperfect women with the respect they deserve.
Incidentally, this marks my final column for this year and why, this decade. I don’t think there’s a better show that I could have written about, one that serves as a fitting finale to this decade which saw women-centric cinema take small steps in the mainstream. For the most part, these films were about women who were nice, struggling, righteous, wronged, and ambitious. But what about those who aren’t ‘nice’? One could just count the few films that chose to shine a spotlight on them.
To use Shakti’s quote, “I was yearning to see a character who was outspoken, proud, bold and yet, be the heroine of the film. In our films, women are only ‘nice’ when they are soft-spoken, listen to men and don’t think too much. That began to bother me.” This was one of the main reasons I wanted to write this column. Here’s to hoping that the next decade bothers me a little less, and rewards us with many more queens.